Monday, January 16, 2006

Half-Life 2 Review

Sorry for the radio silence, everyone. I have a lot of blogging that I need to catch up on, but when I haven't been busy, I've been distracted by Half-Life 2, which I finished a few days ago. Yeah, I'm way behind the times, but I figured I'd throw my voice out there (for anyone who's even interested anymore).


Half-Life 2 picks up where the original Half-Life left off, as much as that can be true, at least. The original ended with the "Deus Ex Machina" G-Man offering you a "job" and then spiriting you away from the Black Mesa compound.

At the start of the sequel, G-man rouses you from some kind of slumber, and deposits you in a train just arriving in City 17, a European city under the control of a military/research organization known as the Combine. Their rule is brutal and complete. After arriving, you don't have much time before you have to flee from the Combine (which you'll spend about half of the game doing). The other half of the game, you're bringing the fight to them.

This is one of the things that everyone was excited about with the release of Half-Life 2. This game is gorgeous. The character models move realistically, the facial expressions are practically human, and the textures (especially in human features) are just fantastic. Some textures in the environment are a little pixelated up close, but I don't think there's much that can be done about that anyhow. Lighting is also superb, with certain environments showing effects that are so realistic you'd swear you were watching a video. I particularly like the Byzantine church in the Lost Coast demo.

The physics system plays a huge part of this aspect, and it is pretty good. It's not just the way bodies move or the way stuff falls . . . it's the way everything interacts. One example (and I'm not the first to use it) is a puzzle where you must get your car to the other side of a river, and the bridge is up. You can do one of two things: Either use a magnetic crane to pick up your car, deposit it on the other side, and then make your way over yourself; or you can use the crane to knock the bridge back down and cross as usual. The many options and complete interactivity of the environment makes the physics engine truly remarkable. There are some down sides to the physics, though; you can pick stuff up, but there doesn't seem to be a differentiation in weight. An empty bottle seems to weigh as much as a paint can, which seem to weigh as much as a fallen rifle. There should be at least some discrepancy in the weights of the objects, but there seems to be just "light" and "heavy."

Let me also take this moment to say that the "Gravity Gun" that is in the game . . . well, the fun in using it is highly underrated. Seriously. I had too much fun just grabbing stuff and chucking it when I first got it, but nothing is more satisfying than slicing a headcrab zombie in two with a propelled saw blade, or holding up a steel crate as cover when soldiers are shooting at you, or even just grabbing an explosive barrel and just chucking it at a group of enemies. Killer fun.

The rest of the gameplay is about the same as before. Gordon can't really jump as well as he could in the first game, and with the removal of the "Long Jump" adapter, he doesn't feel very agile. Still, it's probably more realistic. Most of the weapons are the same as in the first as well, though the energy weapons are gone. The only new addition is a slightly beefier version of the assault rifle. And, instead of the hornet gun, you get a pheremone pod which lets you control antlions (you'll know 'em when you see 'em), which is ridiculously fun.

I can't complain. The voice acting is good (although I wish Gordon would freaking talk), the sound effects are realistic and work well, and the music (which is much more frequent than in the original HL) sets the mood nicely.

Impressions (Warning: Endgame Spoilers!)
The game doesn't feel much like the first game. Instead of escaping a crumbling scientific desert compound, you're running around a decaying city, among other locations. This isn't bad; it just doesn't lend to feeling like it has to be Half-Life. With renamed characters, this could have been any game, not just Half-Life 2.

If you played the first, you might think, "But doesn't the story affect that?" Well, unfortunately, no. One of the most frustrating aspects of HL2 is that you spend most of the game completely in the dark, receiving almost no information on how or why things changed since the end of HL. You spend the entire game fighting an enemy you know almost nothing about; all you know is that they are trying to kill you, while their enemies are nice to you. That's about it.

The end of the game is even more frustrating. The gravity gun gets an upgrade, which is tremendously exciting, but the game just doesn't tell you anything. You fight your way through what looks like a Borg cube, kill the guy who's in charge, and then just when it looks like you're going to be incinerated after accomplishing your goal, the "Deus Ex Machina" G-Man swings in and once again spirits you away with almost zero explanation. I've never had a game frustrate me so much and yet leave so much desperation for the next installment.

Half-Life 2 is a fantastic game. The only reason not to play it is if your computer won't run it. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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